Apparently the bloom is off the rose for conservative book imprints.
McKay Coppins writes that the political conservative book genre is in even worse shape than the publishing industry as a whole. However, I’m not buying the excuse. The excuse is that by setting up exclusive imprints for conservative books, publishers have isolated those books from the mainstream marketplace of ideas. They are now a niche market, which limits their distribution and sales.
I say this always was a niche market, marketed almost exclusively through right-wing media to a niche audience, and if these books aren’t selling like they used to there has to be another reason.
McKay doesn’t say anything about the bulk sales that used to push right-wing books up the best-seller list. McKay says that the web “has decimated the subscription-based “book clubs” that launched a slew of conservative best-sellers in the ’90s and early 2000s,” but those book clubs still exist, and they were still considered a viable marketing tool as recently as 2010. Alex Pareene wrote an article in 2010 musing why George W. Bush’s post-presidency book sold more copies than Bill Clinton’s post-presidency book (really?) and the most plausible reason was …
Conservative book clubs
The sales of books by awful right-wing authors like Jonah Goldberg are boosted by an entire industry dedicated to … boosting the sales of books by awful right-wing authors. Conservative book clubs purchase tens of thousands of copies and right-wing think tanks order right-wing books in bulk. There’s probably a bit more genuine demand for George W. Bush’s wisdom than, say, Laura Ingraham’s wit, but every little bit helps. And there was no progressive equivalent of the right-wing book-buying machine to boost Clinton’s book when it was released.
Steve Benen wrote in 2010,
This is a long-running phenomenon — conservative books nearly always outsell liberal books in large part because of bulk orders. A couple of months ago, for example, Mitt Romney boosted sales of his book by requiring various schools, think tanks, and institutions to buy thousands of copies in exchange for his speeches. Various conferences and Republican outlets do this all the time.
Paul Waldman wrote recently,
As a liberal who has written a few books whose sales were, well let’s just say “modest” and leave it at that, I’ve always looked with envy at the system that helps conservatives sell lots and lots of books. The way worked was that you wrote a book, and then you got immediately plugged into a promotion machine that all but guaranteed healthy sales. You’d go on a zillion conservative talk shows, be put in heavy rotation on Fox News, get featured by conservative book clubs, and even have conservative organizations buy thousands of copies of your books in bulk. If you were really lucky, that last item would push the book onto the bestseller lists, getting you even more attention.
It worked great, for the last 15 years or so. But McKay Coppins reports that the success of conservative publishing led to its own decline. As mainstream publishers saw the money being made by conservative houses like Regnery and the occasional breakthrough of books by people like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray, they decided to get into the act with right-leaning imprints of their own. But now, “Many of the same conservatives who cheered this strategy at the start now complain that it has isolated their movement’s writers from the mainstream marketplace of ideas, wreaked havoc on the economics of the industry, and diminished the overall quality of the work.”
Um, Regnery was not, in effect, a niche imprint? Do most book buyers give a hoo-haw about the imprint?
I think it’s usually true that if you are a niche author, you may be better off going with a small publisher that specializes in marketing your sort of book to your sort of audience rather than with one of the big publishers. But conservative books were unusual among niche books in that they had the huge national media infrastructure Waldman talks about to use for promotion. And that infrastructure is still in place.
It used to be that Ann Coulter could crank out the same book every year, titled Liberals Hate God and America and Want to Eat Your Babies, and be all over television promoting it for awhile, being taken seriously by interviewers. Did people finally catch on that if you’ve read one Coulter book, you’ve read ‘em all, and there’s really no point buying another one?
My guess is that the demise of suburban mall bookstores might really be a factor, but that would not have impacted book club sales. Whoever was buying copies in bulk may have stopped doing that. There may be a glut of too many books titled Liberals Hate God and America and Want to Eat Your Babies authored by various cable bobbleheads.